- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

It was a little more than two years ago that a utility crew clearing trees from its power lines got a call from the U.S. Forest Service warning it against further cutting. The clearing might violate regulations designed to protect the habitat of the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl, the agency explained. Utility officials, who had already received one cease-and-desist order, called off the crew. So workers never got to an aspen tree further ahead that towered over the power line like nature's sword of Damocles.

It is that tree that the Otero County, N.M., Sheriff's Office and others now believe collapsed onto the power line during high winds, setting off a blaze in May that consumed 64 homes, 16,000 acres and, by one estimate, four spotted owls. Two men working in the firefighting that followed also died when their plane crashed. Otero County officials have since passed a resolution asking New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to declare a state of emergency that would protect the county both from the continuing threat of catastrophic fire and from the federal policies that fuel it.

What's happening in Otero County these days would be noteworthy under any circumstances but particularly now because of congressional plans to help still more parts of the country enjoy the benefits of federal land management. In the remaining days of the session, lawmakers are likely to take up something known as the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would effectively set aside more than $40 billion for the purchase of private lands, ostensibly in the name of conservation, recreation and other ideals too precious to trust to the private sector. Alaska Rep. Don Young introduced the legislation, but as other lawmakers have discovered just how much federal help it would allow them to offer to their own constituents, their enthusiasm has grown correspondingly.

It certainly is decent of the federal government to offer to pay for land it wants rather than divesting someone of it in the name of the public good, as it does so often now. Even assuming, however, that the check won't bounce, the question is whether man and animal can survive any more government help than they are already getting.

The threat of catastrophic fire on government lands is hardly new. A 1995 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report warned that failure to manage the prevention of catastrophic fires was the biggest threat to Mexican Spotted Owl recovery.

The events leading up to the fires in Otero County, although officials there probably didn't know it, date from the passage of the Endangered Species Act three decades ago. In 1995 the Forest Service sent officials at the Otero County Electric Cooperative a notice warning them "to cease and desist all cutting of trees associated with your power lines on Lincoln National Forest lands." The cutting, the agency said, "may potentially be in violation of the Endangered Species Act," at least as the Forest Service and a federal judge had interpreted it.

A subsequent internal agency memo gave conditional approval to further clearing work. On the one hand, it provided that the cooperative could remove tree hazards that pose an obvious and immediate threat to life and property. On the other hand, the agency and cooperative would have to make a determination of the hazard on a "site specific" basis, which meant in effect that they would have to walk potentially hundreds of miles along the power line to inspect each potential hazard. Dead trees leaning toward the power lines could possibly, maybe, perhaps be cut down. Roll the dice and see (come on, lucky seven). But dead trees leaning parallel to or away from the power lines would probably, sort of, kind of have to stay. It depended. While the agency and cooperative caucused over what could or could not go, the wind blew the aspen over onto the power lines and made the question academic.

Max Goodwin, the district ranger who sent the 1995 memo to the Otero cooperative, declined responsibility for the fire in an interview, but he did say that the Endangered Species Act has caused perhaps the biggest change in management of federal forest lands that he can recall. Ironically, the agency recently transferred him to its appeals and litigation staff in Albuquerque, N.M., where he now deals, among other things, with lawsuits over forest management that have sprung from the act.

Meanwhile Otero commissioners, fearful of being torched again, want protection from any more help from the federal government. It is, said the commissioners, "beyond question in the minds of reasonable men that the Forest Service …has exposed citizens of the State of New Mexico to the State of Emergency."

CARA's sponsors should explain why exposing still more land to such "protection" is something either man or animal should endorse.

E-mail: [email protected]

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